February 4, 2013
Do you take a daily baby aspirin to prevent heart disease? It may be good for your brain as well, a new study suggests.
An analysis of elderly Swedish women at high risk for cardiovascular disease found that regularly taking low-dose aspirin slowed decline in memory and thinking skills. Some earlier studies have suggested that taking daily aspirin, often recommended for older people at risk for heart disease, may be good for the brain, though results have been mixed on whether it helps to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
For the study, researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden identified about 700 women over 70, some as old as 92, who were at high risk for having a heart attack or stroke. At the beginning of the study period, none had Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory problems, and all were in generally good health. The study participants were given a popular memory and thinking skills test called the Mini Mental-State Exam at the study’s start, then again five years later.
Some were taking a regular low dose of aspirin — in the range of 75 to 160 milligrams — and others were not. A typical baby aspirin sold at pharmacies in the United States contains 80 milligrams of the drug, compared to 325 milligrams for a regular aspirin.
After five years, women who had been taking a daily low-dose of aspirin scored higher on cognitive tests then their peers who weren’t taking aspirin. Those who had been taking aspirin at the start of the study period, and who continued to take the drug five years later, scored highest overall. The findings, published in the British medical journal BMJ Open, suggest that aspirin may have protective effects on the aging brain.
While aspirin appeared to help preserve cognitive skills, those taking aspirin did not have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The researchers speculate that this may be because the study period was relatively short, and only 41 of the study participants developed dementia during the five years of the study. Dementia may take years to develop, and five years may not be enough time to detect significant trends in cognitive tests. The authors note that longer follow-up studies are needed to assess the long-term impact of aspirin on brain health and Alzheimer’s risk.
Aspirin is one of the most widely prescribed medicines to prevent heart disease. Earlier studies have looked at the effect of aspirin and similar drugs that ease inflammation on brain health and dementia, but this is one of the first to look at aspirin use in those at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Many people who develop Alzheimer’s disease also show some degree of vascular disease in the brain, which may contribute to the loss of cognitive function. Those having a high cardiovascular risk are more likely to suffer vascular damage in the brain, so drugs like aspirin, which reduce cardiovascular risk, might also delay losses of cognitive function in these individuals.
Inflammation is increasingly implicated as a contributing factor to heart disease as well as Alzheimer’s, so it would make sense that an inflammation-fighter like aspirin may have benefits for the brain. In addition, aspirin thins the blood, which may help to prevent clots in blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain.
But if low-dose aspirin is good for you, is higher-dose aspirin better? Not necessarily, experts warn. Aspirin and similar drugs can cause potentially dangerous side effects, like internal bleeding, especially at higher doses, so the risks may outweigh any benefits. Aspirin, at any dose, should only be taken regularly in consultation with a physician.
Source: Silke Kern, Ingmar Skoog, Svante Östling, et al: “Does low-dose acetylsalicylic acid prevent cognitive decline in women with high cardiovascular risk? A 5-year follow-up of a non-demented population-based cohort of Swedish elderly women.” Published online BMJ Open, Oct. 3, 2012